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Nicole Erny: Master of craft

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Last fall, Nicole Erny became the youngest person and first female to pass the two-day exam to become one of just four Master Cicerones—certified beer experts, much like sommeliers. Here, the former bartender and current Cicerone exam developer/proctor talks tests, tasting and Bay Area beer with editor Chris Staten.

It’s a fairly lengthy process just to become a Certified Cicerone; why go for the Master level?

Becoming a Master Cicerone was on the distant horizon as soon as I heard of the Cicerone program. I was bartending and teaching courses at The Trappist, and I wanted to take my knowledge as far as I could. Being a young, female bartender, I felt like I constantly had to defend my knowledge. Passing the Certified Cicerone exam certainly set me apart. At some point, I realized that my boss, [Cicerone Certification Program director] Ray Daniels, was going to call me up and ask me to come out and help administer the Master Cicerone exam. Hello, ethical dilemma. I decided that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with the Master exam until I’d taken and passed it, so I refreshed myself on everything about beer I’ve ever learned, followed some curiosities and went for it.

“Women in the beer industry” is something of a buzz topic; how does your achievement fit into the conversation?

It is pretty thrilling to be the fourth-ever person to pass the Master Cicerone exam, and being the first woman is truly an honor. I am excited that women are represented at this caliber of certification so early in the existence of the Cicerone program. Young women are one of the fastest growing groups of craft beer consumers, and women are an important part of this industry at every level, from brewing to sales. Anyone that thinks of the beer industry as a by-dudes, for-dudes industry has certainly got it wrong. Sorry bros.

I once read a recap from a tasting you hosted that said beer lovers would be doing themselves a disservice if they missed one of your events. What’s your approach to engaging people with beer?

I love connecting people with good beer, and I work to recreate some of my formative beer experiences for other people. I also pack my presentations chock-full of details—for better or for worse—and some people love that. No one wants to go to a fun tasting and be bored, so I try to make sure I am prepared with the right material to engage every level of beer enthusiast.

What’s the most basic but effective act of beer education a person can do for friends?

The best thing you can do is create an experience for them. Lead them down the path, but let them make their own discoveries. Bring some beer you think they’d like, give them some context and be prepared with a backup of their regular favorite in case they don’t like it. A friend recently told me a story about introducing a relative to saisons, after which they went right back to Bud Light over ice. You can’t change someone’s preferences, but you can add to it. Whatever you do, don’t make them feel inadequate for their choices. My first favorite beers were some local amber ales that many people thought were boring. That’s ridiculous. I’d rather have a great amber ale than a half-assed limited release any day.

What’s the most exciting thing happening in the Oakland beer scene right now?

Everything. With one of the greatest Belgian beer bars in the country, fantastic beer bars and tasting rooms, and a handful of great breweries, Oakland is really blowing up. Beer has been a big part of the Downtown Oakland resurgence, and most restaurants can’t get away without at least a few great ones on their menus.

What are your three favorite spots to hit on a night out in San Francisco?

A fun night in San Francisco starts off at City Beer Store for a few beers and some great cheese. Then over to the upper Haight for dinner at The Alembic. I always get the pickled quail eggs, and sometimes I cheat on beer for one of their awesome cocktails. From there, I hit Toronado on my way back downtown on the bus for some great local or unusual Belgian offerings.

Which brewery in the Bay Area is the most promising up-and-comer?

Rodger Davis and his wife Claudia are in the midst of launching a new Bay Area brewery called Faction. Rodger made himself famous brewing at Triple Rock and Drake’s and judging at major competitions. He’s the kind of person that believes there is only one right way to do anything, and I think that trait will lead to a pretty amazing brewery— I’ve already seen it happen with the strong choices he makes in recipe formulation. I can’t wait.

What should a visitor sample to understand where the Bay Area beer scene came from, and where it’s headed?

You can’t come to the Bay without trying a beer from Moonlight. Maybe you’ll fall in love, maybe you’ll be underwhelmed, but you will have just tasted a delicious beer from a really important Bay Area brewer that you might not ever have heard of. [Brewmaster] Brian Hunt doesn’t bottle, doesn’t compete, and still drops off all kegs to his select list of accounts himself, usually with an unexpected name like Rajit, Jean-Pierre or Brigett embroidered onto his Moonlight work shirt. What’s better than drinking the beer, like the flagship Death and Taxes, is meeting the man. He has a deep sense of farce, absurdist humor that will have you rethinking everything. You can often find the IPA, Bombay by Boat on cask, and keep on the lookout for gruits and other beers with odd ingredients such as Working for Tips, a delicious beer made with Redwood tips.

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